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Unhealthy Mountain Air

The news about air quality in the North Carolina mountains has been bad for years, but it's been of the sort that some people too readily discount. Warnings from scientists and environmentalists just don't convince some people.

So the trees on the high peaks are dying. Maybe it's just bugs, the skeptics might say. And there are lots of other trees.

So the views are obscured sometimes. There are other days when you can see nearly to Kentucky. And why did they call those mountains the Smokies, anyway?

Sure, the experts say that poor air quality will hurt tourism. So why, doubters might ask, is Great Smoky Mountains the most visited national park in the country, and where do those traffic jams on the Blue Ridge Parkway come from?

But the doctors and other health officials who spoke to a state Senate committee on mountain air quality last week sounded an alarm that ought to be heeded even by those who tend to discount ''treehuggers'' as alarmists. These were people who see the effects of air pollution in the state's mountains day after day -- in their patients struggling with unusually high rates of serious respiratory illnesses.

Officials at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park have been warning visitors for a few summers now that on the days when air pollution is at its worst, they could risk their health by hiking, climbing, bicycling and engaging in other strenuous outdoors activities.

The doctors told legislators that for people who live in the mountains year round, those risks are very real. They reported unusally high death rates from chronic lung diseases such as emphysema and asthma, and said that a larger share of mountain residents die of pneumonia and influenza than people in any other section of the state. Smoking is not the main culprit; the 17 counties in the state's Western region have the lowest rate of fatal lung cancers.

And it's not just the elderly who are victims. Allergists report that North Carolina, and particularly its mountain counties, has ''epidemic'' rates of asthma among children.

It's sadly ironic that breathing in North Carolina's mountains -- where tourism blossomed partly because of the clean, fresh air -- has become a hazard to people's health.

The main sources of the air pollution in the mountains have been pretty well documented. Among them are coal-fired power plants and emissions from too many vehicles.

Sen. Dan Robinson, a Democrat from Jackson County, drew what should be the obvious link between the warnings we've been hearing about obscured mountain views and the health problems the doctors were describing. If a ''visibility standard'' could be established and enforced, he said, not only tourism but also health conditions would benefit.

If air pollution is so bad that we can see it, it can't be good for breathing. Air pollution that kills trees probably isn't healthy for people.

These are warnings that no one should discount.

Published: October 1, 2000

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